Besides a few pictures from a Thailand trip and basic personal information, Daniel Waldorf, a Cal Poly professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering, does not provide much insight into his personal life through a Facebook profile.
Despite increased possibilities for a new kind of interaction between students and professors, most people still agree that maintaining the old-school mentality of separation between professional and personal relationships is important.
Waldorf created a Facebook profile about a year ago as a way to stay connected with professional contacts, accumulating 30 friends, eight of whom are Cal Poly students.
“I don’t feel that I’ve used Facebook to let students into my personal life,” Waldorf said. “My use of it and my interactions with students on it have been on a professional level.”
The line separating personal and professional relationships was not initially an issue since Facebook was only available to college students when it was first launched.
In 2006, however, Facebook became accessible to anyone with a valid e-mail address, creating a potential for the development of student-professor relationships outside traditional educational settings.
“It is probably good if it lets students feel more comfortable about approaching a professor with questions, but most professors do not want students excessively involved in their personal life,” Waldorf said. “I try to be personable and approachable as a professor, but I guess I am still pretty wary about inviting students into my life by posting a lot of personal information on Facebook.”
While Waldorf accepts students’ friend requests and limits the amount of personal information he shares, Jennifer Becker, a Cal Poly sociology professor, maintains a no students policy on Facebook.
“Personally, I prefer to maintain boundaries between my personal life and my professional life,” Becker said. “I don’t feel that the information, including personal stories, pictures, daily activities, group affiliations, political, spiritual, social views shared through Facebook is necessarily information that my students (or others with whom I have a primarily professional relationship for that matter) should be readily privy to.”
Becoming friends with professors on Facebook can provide students with a lot of private information about professors that they would not know through day-to-day student-professor communications within the classroom, which Becker believes crosses a line.
“I feel that the exchanges on social networking sites like Facebook are rather intimate and personal, and extend beyond the context of the student-professor relationship. As well, I do not feel it is appropriate for me to have access to my students’ personal information, photos and exchanges,” Becker said.
Allowing professors to view personal information about students could also create issues with maintaining fairness or equity within the classroom and could provide opportunities for the information shared on Facebook to be misused, Becker said.
“For instance, when my student’s paper is late, should I be able to go on Facebook and read that she was down in Santa Barbara at the beach all weekend?” Becker said. “While I assume that most student-professor interactions on Facebook are rather benign, the potential is there for boundaries to be crossed in ways that are problematic.”
Like Becker, Katy Neidhardt, a psychology and child development professor, has no student Facebook friends because she wants to restrict her involvement in her students’ personal lives.
“I believe there should still be limits to the relationship. I don’t want to be thought of as their buddy. I want to be thought of as their professor who they feel comfortable talking to, but not about the killer party they went to over the weekend,” she said.
Viewing students’ profiles could let professors in on personal information, which Waldorf agrees could lead to student bias.
“My opinion of a student has been affected by their Facebook content. Just as it would be if I learned any number of things about someone through other means. Of course, I try hard not to let that affect the fair treatment and professional relationship with a student,” he said.
While equity issues within the classroom might be a concern for some professors, Waldorf also acknowledges the benefits of communicating with students through Facebook.
The only significant interactions Waldorf has had with students were with groups that he accompanied on study-abroad trips, one with a student club (Engineers Without Borders) and one with a group he accompanied for a quarter in Thailand. He found that Facebook was a good medium to keep students updated about trip information.
“Pictures and videos of the trip were the most common information exchanged over Facebook. I was also able to keep up-to-date on student questions, concerns, etc., regarding the trips,” Waldorf said.
Just as professors vary on their willingness to become friends with students on Facebook, students also have mixed opinions.
Psychology junior Shauna Shea isn’t friends with any professors on Facebook and doesn’t intend to be.
“I think becoming friends with professors on Facebook is really awkward. I don’t want them being able to see into my personal life, and frankly, I am not really interested in what my professors do in their free time,” she said.
Fourth year recreation, parks and tourism administration major Cayse Hunstad is also not friends with any professors on Facebook because she wants to keep her school life separate from her personal life.
“I wouldn’t want to be friends with professors on Facebook. There should definitely be a line between professional life and your social life,” she said.
Nutrition senior Anna Robinson, however, is friends with one professor on Facebook who friend-requested her.
“It was my speech class professor. The whole environment of that class was different though because everyone is getting to know each other through the speeches,” Robinson said. “I checked to make sure that he had friend requested other students in my class and he had, so I accepted it. I thought it was weird. Everyone was writing on his wall and stuff.”
Although Shea and Hunstad are not friends with any professors on Facebook, they admit that there are some professors that they would be more inclined to become Facebook friends with than others, she said.
“I think the younger the professor is, the more you can relate to them and the less awkward it would be if you were to become friends on Facebook. The older the professor, you just would have to wonder, ‘Why are they friending me?’ whereas with a younger teacher it would seem less weird,” Shea said.
Hunstad feels that professors who are more friendly in class would not be as weird to be friends with on Facebook.
“It would depend a lot on the way they are in class. Some teachers you’re just more comfortable around. It’s the ones that are not really that friendly in class that would be more weird,” Hunstad said.